Unscrupulous customer care at Apple

This is one of those posts I don’t enjoy writing but this must be said.

I have a mid-2011 27″ iMac (with AppleCare). It has now broken down three times for the very same problem (its video card goes bad). Other things on it also broke down, like the SuperDrive.

Bottom line: Apple has refused to replace it, although I’ve asked them twice. I think they’re just trying to kick the ball down the road until AppleCare expires. This isn’t the first time, they did it to me with another iMac.

Section 3.1 in the AppleCare agreement says the following:

“Apple will either (a) repair the defect at no charge, using new or refurbished parts that are equivalent to new in performance and reliability, or (b) exchange the Covered Equipment with a replacement product that is new or equivalent to new in performance and reliability, and is at least functionally equivalent to the original product.”

Notice they’re giving no clear rules about when they’ll replace it, although when you speak with Apple technicians, they’ll say three times is when it happens. It’s been three times for me and still no replacement. Not specifying when a defective computer must get replaced in the AppleCare Terms of Service gives Apple lots of backpedaling room, so they can delay that expense as much as possible, perhaps until AppleCare expires.

Here’s what makes this unscrupulous and unacceptable from my point of view:

  • They did this to me before with my iMac G5 (Rev. B). Those of you who owned that computer know it had a lot of issues; most often, its motherboard went bad and needed to be replaced. The board on that iMac broke down three times during its AppleCare coverage. It was in the shop for other issues as well: the Super Drive, the Bluetooth module, the WiFi module, fan speed issues (fans would go on high and stay there permanently). The motherboard broke down for the third time a month or two before AppleCare expired. They fixed it but refused to replace it. Then it broke down a few months after AppleCare expired and by then, it wasn’t their problem anymore.
  • It’s unconscionable for an Apple computer to break down in such a major way, repeatedly, after a little more than a year of use, which is when the problems with my current iMac started. Imagine where I’d be if I hadn’t bought AppleCare for this thing. It’d be sitting in my attic alongside my iMac G5. Essentially, I would have paid about $2,000 (after taking out tax and cost of AppleCare) for a computer that would have lasted a little more than a year. How shoddy was Apple’s quality control when this computer was made?
  • When the video card in my iMac broke down a second time, I was promised by a technician from Apple’s Advanced Support department, that when it happened for a third time, I’d get a replacement. Now they tell me his promise wasn’t documented in the case history so it doesn’t count. Perhaps the technician lied to me at the time to delay the replacement.
  • I’ve been an Apple customer since 1994, when I bought a PowerBook 150, my first Apple notebook. I’ve bought plenty of Apple stuff since then. Is this the way they’re treating long-time customers?
  • Apple has been putting me through all this unpleasantry right around my birthday. They have my birthday on file. No comment here.
  • Apple is one of the richest, if not the richest, companies on earth. They ought to be treating their customers right, because it’s because of them that they are where they are. It’s the right thing to do and they have the wherewithal to do it.

I wrote to Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO. No response from him, but a few days later, I was contacted by one of the people at Apple Executive Relations EMEIA in Cork, Ireland. I thought my situation would then be handled properly. No, just insincere apologies and a refusal to replace it. I wrote to Tim Cook again. No response, instead more of the same from Apple Executive Relations in Ireland. That confirmed it for me: you know what they say, a fish starts to stink from the head down. It looks to me like he’s instructed his people to do everything possible not to replace computers, even when they should be replaced. What other conclusion can I draw but this?

I was asked to accept the repair one last time and was promised that my iMac would get replaced for sure the next time its video card broke down. I asked the woman with whom I spoke to put that promise in writing. She refused point blank. I assume this was yet another lie from Apple to delay the replacement. What else can I assume when a person won’t put their promise in writing?

What complicates matters somewhat in my situation is that I bought the iMac in the States but have since transported it to Romania, which is where we spend some of our time. I can take it into an authorized Apple Repair shop and AppleCare covers its repairs there, so technically, replacements should also work. Not that this is a problem. I’ve told Apple they can ship the replacement to my US address. But I think what’s happening here is that they’re using geography and customs complications as an excuse not to replace my computer.

What should have happened is this: Apple should have replaced my current iMac, no questions asked. And out of embarrassment because of the way they handled the repairs on my iMac G5, they should have offered to at least repair it, if not replace it with its modern-day iMac counterpart.

The AppleCare agreement also says this:

For consumers in jurisdictions who have the benefit of consumer protection laws or regulations, the benefits conferred by the above mentioned plans are in addition to all rights and remedies provided under such laws and regulations. Nothing in this plan shall prejudice consumer rights granted by applicable mandatory laws, including consumer’s right to the remedies under statutory warranty law and to seek damages in the event of total or partial non-performance or inadequate performance by Apple of any of its contractual obligations.

Apple is currently in breach of EU/Romanian consumer protection laws on at least two counts, by my understanding:

  1. European/Romanian consumer protection laws mandate that repairs be made with new parts, not refurbished parts. Apple technicians, including the people from Apple Executive Relations, have admitted that they’ve been using refurbished parts to fix my iMac until now, and only this last time have they used a new replacement video card. The woman from Apple Executive Relations Ireland said that to me during one of our phone conversations… So they’ve been in breach on this point from the get-go.
  2. European/Romanian consumer protection laws further mandate that the customer must be offered the choice of a replacement or repair. The choice rests with them, not with Apple. I asked for a replacement, didn’t get it, they’re in breach of the law.

Since I bought my iMac in Florida, I also put in a request for assistance with the Office of the Attorney General there and I’ll see what they say. If any of you reading this are knowledgeable on the matter, please chime in.

I’d like to quote from a recent ad campaign from Apple. Keep in mind the things you’ve just read above as you see what they’re saying:

This is it.
This is what matters.
The experience of a product.
How it makes someone feel.

Will it make life better?

We spend a lot of time
On a few great things.

How am I supposed to feel after the way you’ve just treated me, Apple? Would you say that you’ve made my life better?

Couple this self-congratulatory ad piece with Tim Cook’s stating during the WWDC Keynote that Apple is #1 in Customer Satisfaction and that it “means so much” to him. If this stuff means so much to Apple, they wouldn’t be doing this to me (and who knows to how many others).

There will probably be some comments about switching to another platform. This isn’t about that. I love my Apple hardware and software. It’s just that quality control seems to be going down the drain and Apple execs seem to be in risk management mode. Apple computers have traditionally been about two things: design and quality. That’s what I’ve been paying for when I bought Apple products. Now it seems they’re about one thing: design.

I want to make it clear that I think what’s now happened to me twice is not the norm of my experience with Apple; that’s why I still buy Apple products. For example:

  • The Powerbook 150 I bought in 1994 lasted about 6 years before the hard drive went bad; if I fix it, I might even be able to boot it up and use it today,
  • The 15″ MacBook Pro I bought in 2008 is still going strong; along the way, I replaced the hard drive and the two cooling fans, but I can still edit HD video on it,
  • The iMac I advised my parents to buy in 2008 is also still going strong. It had a couple of minor issues but they occurred while it was still covered by AppleCare,
  • The 13″ MacBook we bought in 2008 still works; although the video conks out every once in a while, a reboot sets it straight, and
  • My experience with Apple software has been positive from the get-go; I’ve always found it to be stable, a joy to use and easy to live with.

I suppose whatever happened to my two iMacs was inevitable as their volume increased (making more of everything means there will be also be more manufacturing defects) but the way they’re choosing to handle the situation reminds me of PC companies, and I don’t think Apple shareholders and customers want to see it go down that road.

Still, if that’s what’s in the cards for Apple and their stuff is going to become less and less reliable, then I guess they’ll have to convince their customers to buy their stuff for looks alone and for the real work, people might have to build Hackintoshes, where they’ll get to use the Apple software they love and get the reliability, serviceability and upgradeability that we should be getting directly from Apple. With a Hackintosh, we won’t need to pay extra for AppleCare, which now appears to be a band-aid that tides you over with refurbished parts for the three contractual years only to have your computer break down soon afterward. Planned obsolescence and a price premium? Is that the Apple way?

My take-home message for Tim Cook and Apple: this isn’t the way you should be doing business.

Why is it that Apple has three messaging apps?

  

Back when Apple brought out FaceTime, I couldn’t get why it had to make a separate video chat app when it already had iChat. Now we have a third app included with iOS 5, called iMessage. Why?

If the people at Apple are intent on making little messaging apps, each with their micro-purpose, then I’d like to suggest some new ones to them:

  • iShmooze: giving people a direct chat line to their boss or work hierarchy
  • iRx: so you can chat about your medications with your neighbors and know-it-all relatives, and get better prescription advice than from your doctor
  • iExChat: for venomous quips exchanged between ex-spouses and other ex-es…
  • iSeeAds: for people interested in seeing targeted ads; perhaps you can work in a micro-pyramid scheme where people can get something like 1-5 cents when they view an ad or invite their friends to view ads; that should be popular…
  • iSeeDeadPeople: photo sharing for zombie and vampire lovers
  • iPotty: for those who love to share those precious moments in the bathroom
  • iAte: see above and substitute food; this one could come with a photo sharing option, for those who love taking photos of said food; in hindsight, perhaps the photo sharing option could be extended to the iPotty app as well, I saw some folks online who would be interested in that.

For a company renowned for its design and the clear focus of its products, I’m surprised to see three messaging apps. Why? Didn’t anyone put their hand up to say, “Hey, don’t we already have iChat?”

Perhaps it makes sense to have the separation, from a software and procotol perspective. Perhaps iChat was designed for the computer. Perhaps the AOL messaging protocols it still uses aren’t suited for the purposes of FaceTime and iMessage. But it still makes NO sense.

If Apple was able to take OS X and turn it into iOS, then take features from iOS and put them back into OS X, then it’s quite capable of making iChat the go-to app for all its messaging needs. Rewrite it and make it work! It’s already incredibly capable on the desktop. It can do text chat, audio chat, video chat, file sharing and screen sharing. I use it all the time to do video conferencing with my parents, all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, and I use it for screen sharing as well, when I help them troubleshoot issues on their computers or simply teach them how to use them better. Why in the world would you leave a capable app like that behind and write a new one called FaceTime? And then why would you further fragment that segment and make another one called iMessage? Why?

I’d like to see iChat be the one and only app that does everything this set of three apps does and more. I’d like to challenge the people at Apple to make it work the way it should work, tailored to the capabilities of each device where it will be installed.

How to avoid nightmares when upgrading your Drupal install

I had some real “fun” today (about a full day’s worth) after upgrading one of my Drupal installs from 7.7 to 7.8. The whole site went awry: the template no longer showed, I was only getting text, I kept getting either 404 or 500 errors when clicking on links, and nothing I did seemed to make it better. Even restoring from a backup yielded the same garbled pages. It’s fixed now and working perfectly (well, not perfectly, because some modules are still in beta and there will always be some errors, but it’s working as expected, let’s put it that way).

If you’re only here because your site is garbled after an upgrade, let me save you some time. There are two reasons (I know of ) for it:

  1. You have Clean URLs enabled and your .htaccess file got replaced. That means the RewriteBase rule is now commented out. Don’t bother to turn off Clean URLs, there’s no need to do that. Uncomment it, refresh your site and links should be working properly.
  2. If your theme is now messed up and you only see text, plus you can’t navigate around your site, you have your site cache and compression turned on, don’t you? Yeah you do, and now the new version of Drupal doesn’t know how to read the cache files, because it didn’t write them. So do yourself a favor and turn the cache files off. You’ll have to use the “dirty” URLs if you can’t navigate to the admin panel, so instead of example.com/admin you’ll need to type example.com/?q=admin, and so on and so forth. Disable the compression and the cache, and delete all the cache files. Presto-change-o, your site now looks normal again!

So, what can you do to avoid having the same crappy day I did? Let’s take it by the numbers, shall we?

1. Put your site in maintenance mode.

2. Always, always back up your site and your database before doing a core upgrade.

I would recommend doing a backup even before upgrading modules. Don’t rely on backup modules. Do the backups manually, and just so you won’t panic when something goes wrong, test your backup method by restoring from it to a separate install, to make sure you’re doing the right things. This is especially important for database backups, where it’s REALLY important for you to be able to restore from a downloaded SQL file.

Before doing the core upgrade, do a full backup of the entire site, not just the sites folder. And just to make it easier for you to restore the sites folder afterward, do a separate backup of that folder, and of the .htaccess file at the root level of your drupal install. And back up the database, that’s really important! If you do this right, you’ll only need to use the database backup.

3. Turn off all site caching and compression and clear the site cache. This is really important! If you don’t do this, it’s quite likely that your site will be just as garbled as mine after the core upgrade.

4. Create a new site folder on your server, because you’re going to do a brand new install of Drupal (whatever the latest version is). Inside that folder, wget the latest drupal tar.gz file and untar it.

Okay, now comes the fun part.

5. Delete the sites folder in the new Drupal install and copy over your old sites folder.

6. Make sure any changes done to your .htaccess and robots.txt file are reflected in their counterparts in the new Drupal install. Or, it’s quite likely that the old thing that you need to change in the .htaccess file is to uncomment the Rewrite Base line. Find it and uncomment it.

If you don’t uncomment this line and you have Clean URLs enabled, your site will either give you 404 or 500 errors when you try to access the admin interface or alias URLs, so this is quite an important step!

7. Restore your database from the SQL backup. That is, create a new database on your server and through the web interface or through SSH, restore your database backup to it, to get an exact copy of your live Drupal database.

8. Now run the database update script. Browse over to your Drupal install + /update.php and run it to make sure the database upgrade is also completed.

9. Now you have some choices to make. Once you do this, you have two working installs of Drupal: the old, reliable install, which you’ve been using, and the new install, which should be working, but who knows what bugs there might be in the code, that you’ll only discover as you begin working with it.

So now you have two choices: you can either map your domain to the new directory or rename the old directory then rename the new directory to match the old. In other words, you’ll want your domain to point to the new Drupal install. Or, you have the luxury of saying “Forget this new version for now!” and keep using your old Drupal install, until they work out all the bugs (that’ll be the day…)

That’s it! Pat yourself on the back. This should have taken about 15 minutes or less, not a whole day…

I hope this has been helpful!

A lot of teachers in Romania shouldn’t be teaching

It’s been a couple of weeks or so since high school students in Romania had to take their graduation exams — the Bac, as it’s known over here. The whole thing was a huge controversy this year, because for the first time ever, there were strict rules in place to ensure no cheating occurred on the exams.

Not sure if you knew this, but there’s a lot of cheating in Romanian schools. It occurs on a massive scale. 

It got this way in the past twenty years, as the school system got worse. Teachers were paid less, working hours got longer, the classrooms got bigger, and a lot of teachers stopped caring. That’s not to say they were paragons of teaching before that. I met my fair share of horrible persons in the teaching ranks before I left the country to live in the States. Now that I’m back, it seems they’ve multiplied.

Abroad, Romanian students are known as hard-working and studious — downright nerdy, brilliant at the sciences, etc. That (small) group is still around, but it’s gotten smaller. Many of the students with great grades get them because they cheat these days. They have it down to a science. Forget the little pieces of paper we might use to scribble down a few formulas when we were in school. These kids have cellphones with apps that store textbooks. Or they take photos of hard-to-remember pages with their cellphones, and zoom into those photos during tests. Or they text their buddies, naturally. In some classrooms where the teachers have stopped caring altogether, the students simply open their textbooks, lay them on the desks and copy away. In the vocational high schools, they don’t even bother with cheating anymore. They simply write the answers on the blackboard, to make sure they pass everyone.

Is it any wonder that the younger generations in Romania are so easy to manipulate, when they remain uneducated as they go through schools? A dumb population is what every despot wants, because they’re easiest to control. You just have to give them a cheap bread with one hand and point them to a scapegoat with the other, and they’ll obey. Is it any wonder then, that we have such a corrupt political class in charge of the country?

So for this round of graduation exams, the minister of education set a goal: no more cheating. They had proctors in every classroom, and they had video cameras. Anyone caught cheating would be disqualified and would be kicked out.

I think you can guess what the results were: deplorable. A LOT of kids didn’t pass, because they couldn’t cheat. A LOT were caught cheating, and were disqualified. The pass rate in Bucharest (the capital) was under 50% (somewhere around 43-44%). In some school districts, the pass rate was under 30%, and in some really problematic districts, no one passed. Now can you begin to realize the scale of the cheating that took place in previous years?

Naturally, there’s blame to be thrown on someone, and right now, parents and students and teachers and politicians are busy trying to see who’s to blame. I think the teachers are to blame.

Before I tell you why, let me just point out that I interview students from Romania for admission to Middlebury College (my alma mater back in the States). I’ve been an interviewer for years. When I lived in the States, I interviewed American kids. Now that I live in Romania, I’ve offered to interview Romanian kids. How do you think this cheating scandal has affected the reputation of Romanian kids abroad?

How can the folks back at Midd or Yale or Stanford know which Romanian kids applying to their schools cheated to get those grades, and which ones didn’t? I’m not clairvoyant, so I have no way of knowing myself. I’d love to be able to look at the face of a kid I’m interviewing, like Cal Lightman in Lie to Me, and know that they’re lying about not cheating, but I don’t have those abilities (yet?). So this is why I’m very glad to see a general crackdown on cheating in Romania, and I hope this crackdown translates into long-term changes in the education system to ensure no more cheating. That’s because when I look at a kid’s grades, I want to know they’re honest grades, not inflated through deception and through the theft of other kids’ hard work.

The teachers set the tone in their classrooms. They knew when cheating took place. No one can tell me teachers don’t know when you’re cheating. If they’re good teachers and they care about their students, they know. They can see it on your face right away.

But the teachers stopped caring, so the cheating got endemic. More students saw that it was easier to cheat than learn, and that high grades were within easy reach, so they started doing it too. And it’s the teachers’ fault. Instead of doing their jobs properly, and instilling a love of learning in their students, instead of encouraging them to learn and showing them how interesting the subject matter can be, they resorted to cheap tactics (tactics which should be made illegal) of forcing students to memorize paragraphs and pages from the textbooks and repeating them outloud (or writing them) during exams. What kind of a lazy, pompous bum do you have to be in order to force kids to do that instead of explaining the concepts to them?

As a child, I was beaten (slapped hard, my hands beaten with a ruler) by our grade school math teacher, who was having an affair with one of the other teachers. When rebuffed by his lover, would come to class piss-drunk and would beat the kids. He’d beat me, along with other kids, because we couldn’t remember math formulas when he screamed at us, or that we couldn’t do calculations fast enough.

Or what about the many vindictive teachers I’ve had, who if they had it in for you, for whatever reason, would use every opportunity to belittle me or the other students, and give us all low grades? I met just such a teacher recently and I was blown away by how much anger she had for people who didn’t share her view of things, and how far she’d go to blackball them. Can you imagine these people teaching children? What kind of an example are they for our kids? What do you think those kids will learn from them? Hate, anger, vindictiveness and methods of punishment? Or what about unquestioning submission to the classroom despot? Are those the things we want them to learn?

Have you heard of the teachers (and professors) that will give you low grades if you don’t quote their books when you write your papers? They’re such egotists that if you don’t pay homage to their books, you won’t pass their course. Never mind that many of them copy their books outright from foreign textbooks, stealing the intellectual property of others so they can embellish their own curriculum vitae and hang on to their posts or get promoted.

What about the filthy perverts who ask for sex in order to let you pass their courses? Yes, that happens as well. They caught one such pervert recently in a girl’s dorm room, partially undressed and ready to seal the deal — thankfully, the girl managed to get away, but how many girls to do you think submit to this sort of thing just so they can get their diploma?

All I have to do to get more horror stories like this is to go out and ask any grade school, high school or college student to share their own experience. I for one am amazed that we still have so many qualified students graduating from Romania’s schools — these are cogent, thoughtful people, who’ve managed to rise above all the crap that goes on in those places and decide to do something good with their lives. Kudos to them for sticking it out, because it was a tough journey!

My suggestion to the Romanian government is to get to work right now on reforming education in Romania and to eliminate all the bad teachers right away. The more they leave the inadequate specimens in the classrooms, the more they’ll infect the young generations’ minds.

Java finally acknowledges upgrade issues

Not sure how many of you have been aware of this, but Java upgrades over the past several years have been problematic for Windows users. When a new version of Java came out, the installer would prompt you to upgrade, but would never prompt you to remove the old version, or do it for you. In my work, I’d see computers with as many as 10-12 different versions of Java on them. The user, unaware of the messiness built into the Java upgrade, would leave the old versions on their machine, and they’d keep piling up. You could see them in the Add/Remove Control Panel, but how many people know how to look there, and how many know that it’s okay to remove old versions of Java?

So I was heartened to see that Java is finally acknowledging the problem with old Java versions sitting on Windows machines, and is now prompting users to remove them after installing the new version. See the screenshot below.

Ideally, their upgrade engine ought to remove them for the user, but at least this is a step in the right direction. And to think that Java is being used everywhere these days (even where you don’t want it), and it took all this time for them to straighten out the upgrade issues. It’s a bit shameful if you ask me.

File corruption rears its ugly head

During the last few weeks, I’ve seen the following error in Adobe Lightroom 3.

There I am, editing photos, minding my own business, and when I try to view a photo for editing, I get the error message you see above: “The file appears to be unsupported or damaged.”

When I try to view the file in the finder, I get the same error message, this time directly from the OS: “The file […] could not be opened. It may be damaged…”

Here’s my workflow:

  1. Shoot RAW
  2. Import RAW files as DNG into Lightroom (LR converts them on the fly)
  3. Process in LR
  4. Export as JPG or as needed
  5. Back up the catalog and check its integrity weekly

It’s pretty straightforward, and that’s the way I like it. I currently have about 85,000 photos in my LR library, whose catalog is stored locally on my MBP, with the files (DNG, RAW, JPG and TIF) residing on a Firewire Drobo.

Fortunately, the file corruption is only temporary, meaning there’s an error somewhere along the way:

  • It could be Lightroom
  • It could be the DNG file format (because I haven’t gotten the error with RAW or JPG files)
  • It could be OS X: I wonder how much testing Apple did for 10.6.5 with volumes greater than 4TB
  • It could be the Drobo: it’s a big volume (4.4TB) with lots of data that’s constantly being updated, lots of I/O traffic

I don’t know, and I hope someone reading this has an answer.

What fixes the error every time is quitting LR, ejecting the Drobo, cycling its power, mounting it, and starting LR. I’ve also tried just restarting LR, or just ejecting the Drobo, but those methods didn’t work.

SmugMug, are you listening?

I’m disappointed with SmugMug over their continued lack of support for proper export and maintenance of photographs directly from Lightroom. Back in July, I wrote about the Flickr Publish Service in Lightroom, and wondered when SmugMug would introduce their own.

What I was really looking for (and I said this in the post) was a way for the publish service to identify what I’ve already uploaded and allow me to re-publish those photos where I’ve made changes to the metadata or to the processing. The official Flickr Publish Service didn’t offer that option.

A few of my readers (Gary, Chris, Russell, thanks!) pointed me to Jeffrey Friedl’s excellent plugins for Lightroom, and I’ve been using them ever since. As a matter of fact, I’ve switched over to them completely. I use them for all four web services where I currently publish photos (SmugMug, Flickr, Facebook and PicasaWeb). I don’t know what I’d do without them. Wait, I do know — I know for sure I’d be doing a LOT more work and spending a LOT more time uploading and maintaining my online collections.

With Jeffrey’s LR plugins, I was able to identify about 90% of the photos already uploaded to SmugMug, and about 75% of the photos already uploaded to Flickr. In the case of Flickr, I then did manual updates and re-identifies so I could get it to know 95% of the photos already uploaded. This means Lightroom now allows me to quickly identify, update and replace almost any photos I’ve got at SmugMug, Flickr, Facebook and PicasaWeb. This is huge.

There is a catch, though, and it’s a BIG one. I keep running into the same “Wrong Format ()” error with SmugMug, which means I still haven’t been able to straighten out the photos I’ve uploaded to them. Here are a couple of screenshots of the error messages I get. It starts with a “TimedOut” error, then I get the “Wrong Format ()” error, then the upload process aborts.

I get these errors almost every time I try to re-publish an updated photo, but I don’t get them as often when I try to upload new photos. To give you an idea of how bad things are, I’ve currently got 109 photos to update in one of my galleries at SmugMug, and last night, I had about 167 photos. I’ve had to restart the re-publish process about 30-40 times since last night. You do the math, but I think it works out to 1-2 photos per error. This sucks. I should be able to just click the Publish button and walk away, knowing all of my changes will propagate correctly.

I’ve contacted Jeffrey, and I’ve contacted SmugMug. I’ve had extensive email conversations with each. SmugMug alternates in their replies. They’ve said the following to me:

  • It’s a fault with the plugin
  • It’s something on their end but they’re working on it
  • There’s nothing they can do about it
  • I should use something else to upload photos
  • They blamed my setup, which we ruled out after some internet connectivity tests

Jeffrey says there’s nothing he can do about it, and I believe him more than I believe SmugMug. Want to know why? Because his other plugins work just fine. I’m able to re-publish updated photos to Flickr and Facebook and PicasaWeb without any problems. Only SmugMug somehow can’t handle my uploads.

I’ve tried reloading the plugin, installing it anew, removing and re-adding the publish service, upgrading the plugin, but nothing. I still get the same errors.

My question for the smug folks at SmugMug is this: how is it possible that Facebook and Flickr and PicasaWeb have worked out the re-publish issues, but you haven’t? What’s taking you so long? Why can’t you work out the same problem on your end?

I was hoping that with the release of Lightroom 3.2, and the release of the official SmugMug Publish Service for LR (hat tip to David Parry for the advance notice), that SmugMug would work out the kinks in their API, but it looks like they still haven’t done it. I tried their plugin, but of course they took the easy route, like Flickr, and haven’t introduced any functionality that would identify photos already uploaded to their service. Only Jeffrey Friedl’s plugins offer this feature.

This leaves me terribly disappointed. As a SmugMug Pro, I don’t want to bother with error messages. I don’t want to bother with posts like this. I’d rather post photographs and update my SmugMug galleries in peace, but I can’t.

If you’re having the same problems with SmugMug, please, write to them, and ask them when they’re going to get their act together. This problem’s existed for several months. How much more time will it take until they deal with it?

BMW 325i build quality problems

I put together a short video review of the build quality problems in the 2006 BMW 235i sport sedan. These are things like:

  • Rotting or loose rubber seams on the outside
  • Easily scratched/worn door handles
  • Faulty cup holders
  • Flimsy, easily melted cigarette lighters
  • Soft plastic finishes that disintegrate and scuff right away
  • Broken window shades
  • Plasticky, snap-together feel of ceiling consoles
  • Fading radio display
  • Various cockpit noises

Watch the video on YouTube | blip.tv

As one of the commenters in a BMW forum puts it, it comes down to “BMW’s choice of low quality materials in high wear areas“. That is a wonderfully succinct explanation of the problem.

These things keep breaking down, they get replaced, then they break down again. If BMW would bother to add up all the service costs they incur for repeat repairs to the cockpit, they would realize it would be cheaper to make them better in the first place. This is my plea to them: start building better cars — a bad cockpit ruins the driver experience and takes away from the wonderful handling and performance of a BMW.

Site migration complete

Last night, I completed what could be called an unusual site migration. I went from a self-hosted WP install to WP.com. That’s right, my full site is now hosted at my WP.com account. People usually migrate from WP.com to WP self-installs after their site gets big and they decide they want more options, like the ability to run all sorts of ads and fiddle with the code, etc. With me, it was the opposite. I wanted to stop worrying about my web server and focus on publishing my content.

As I mentioned here, things got worse after upgrading to WP 2.9. My server kept going down for no reason, and often, too. It’d go down several times a day. I’d have to keep watching it all the time, and that got old real quick, especially when I traveled and had no internet access. I’d often get home to find out my site was down and had been down for several hours, if not more. Since I hadn’t mucked about with my server to make things worse, and had already fiddled with optimized my Apache, MySQL and PHP settings to last me a lifetime, I decided to have WP have a go at hosting my site and let them worry about keeping it going. Judging by the initial results, it looks like they had a bit of trouble with it too (see this, this, this and this), but at least it’s not my headache anymore.

During the migration process, I learned three things:

  1. I hadn’t been getting full XML transcripts of my site in the past, when I used WP’s WXR Export feature. See this for more, and make sure you’re not in the same boat.
  2. The WordPress Import wizard still needs a TON of work to iron out the bugs. You’ll see why below.
  3. WordPress.com Support can be terribly unresponsive. I waited over 20 days for a resolution to my ticket about the site migration, and in the end, I had to work things out myself. When I told them as much — and I tried to be as nice as possible about it — it would have been nice to get a small apology, but I didn’t even get that.

Granted, my site migration does not represent the usual WP user’s migration path, nor was it a typical migration. By current count, I have 1,552 posts, 4,129 comments and 3,090 media files. That’s quite a bit more than your average blogger, and I think that’s what served to point out the bugs in the Import Wizard.

What exactly were the bugs?

  • Failure to import all posts, comments and media files
  • Post and media file duplication
  • Failure to properly change all paths to media files (either image source or image link or both)

Here’s where I need to acknowledge the help I did receive from WP Support. My WXR file was over 20 MB. The WXR upload limit at WP.com is 15 MB. WP Support modified the upload limit to allow me to go through with the WXR upload, and they also adjusted the timeout limit, because the migrations timed out prematurely as well. So I thank them for that help.

The big problem turned out to be the third issue mentioned above. The Import Wizard didn’t change all the paths to the image files. It turned out to be a very hit-or-miss operation. Given the scale of the operation, I might even call it a disaster. Some posts were fine, some weren’t at all, and some were a hodge-podge of images that were okay, and images whose paths were wrong, or whose links were wrong, or both. You might imagine that checking and fixing the image paths for over 3,000 media files can turn out to be a very big job, and it was.

I was also under pressure to finish the job quickly, since the site was live. Imagine how you’d feel as a reader if you visited a website and none of the image files showed up — you’d probably think the site was dead or dying, right? Well, I certainly didn’t want people to think my site was on its last legs, so I had to act quickly.

Thankfully, only (sic) about 40% of my posts had their image files messed up. The rest were fine, but then I also had plenty of posts with no images. If all my posts contained images, I might have had 90% of my posts to worry about… Still, I had to check every post, and as you might know if you’re a regular reader, I post lots of images per post, and where a post was messed up, brother, I had to do a bunch of work to get it fixed up. Just as an example, some posts have anywhere from 20-50 images…

Here are a couple of screenshots that show you how things stood. Here, the image link was okay, which meant I didn’t have to modify it. This was a happy scenario. However, the image path was still wrong, as you’ll see below.

The image source, or path, didn’t change during the import process, which meant I had to change it manually, or browse for the image by title or file name in the media library and re-insert it.

The image size was also lost, which meant that if I changed the image path manually, I had to also enter the width of the image.

What made things more cumbersome was the lack of an image insert button in the Gallery dialog box. That’s one of the differences between a WP self-install and WP.com. This meant that even though I’d uploaded a certain image for a certain post, and it showed on the Gallery tab, I couldn’t go there and re-insert it into a post. I had to go to the Media Library tab, search for it, then re-insert it, which takes precious time and clicks, particularly when you’re dealing with thousands of images.

In spite of all the extra work which I had to do, and which took about 1½ weeks of my time, I got done last night. My site is now fully functional, thank goodness!

As for my experience with WP Support, there are no hard feelings. I like the WordPress platform and it’s done good by me so far. I wasn’t a VIP customer and they didn’t have any financial incentives (besides the small fees for a space upgrade and a domain mapping) to get their hands dirty with my code. They offered minimal support, and to a certain degree, that’s to be expected when most of your customers are non-paying customers, as is the case with the large majority of WP bloggers.

Still, I would encourage them to consider doing the following:

  • Improve their Import Wizard so that it will not terminate until it checks and doublechecks to make sure it has imported all the posts, comments, pages, tags, categories and media files, and all the paths to the media files are correct. They’ve still got one of my WXR files, and they can use it as case study to help improve the accuracy of the import wizard.
  • Include an image insert button on the Gallery tab of the “Add an Image” dialog box, like the one that already exists on WP self-installs.
  • Offer the functionality of the Search & Replace WP plugin for WP.com blogs. This would have been a huge help to me as I fixed the image paths. I could have run a couple of queries on my blog’s content to change most of the image paths, and it would have halved my workload.

If you were one of the folks who kept seeing no images during this transition period, sorry for the inconvenience, and I’m glad you’re still around. If you’re still seeing no images, definitely get in touch with me, I might have missed a few — after all, I’m only human.

Wondering when California's budget is going to get fixed

One great thing about California is they’re not allowed to go into debt, like the federal government. They must always balance their budget. And yet the California legislature has failed to address this problem and has let deadline after deadline slip by, in seeming mockery, in spite of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s continued pleas and coaxing. When in the world will they get their act together?

Gov. Schwarzenegger’s weekly address, 7/3/09

Governor discusses state budget in weekly address

Anyone from California care to clue me in? Seems to me the legislature’s stalling because they have their own agenda and want to spite Schwarzenegger. What he’s saying makes sense to me. Is there another side to this story that I don’t know about?

It’s no surprise broadband internet sucks in the US

A recent Akamai survey, which I shared here and here, ranked US in the 33rd spot (globally) when it came to broadband internet connections above 2 Mbps. Sure, it moved up two spots compared to last year, but it’s still lagging behind countries such as Monaco, Slovakia, South Korea, and believe it or not, Romania — which is where I’m living these days.

That’s sad. It’s very sad because a country such as Romania, with fewer resources than the US, and with a LOT more corruption at every level, has managed to provide better Internet services than the US. It just goes to show you how much pork barrel legislation and ridiculous lobbying can slow down an entire country’s Internet access. Why, every time a company tried to improve the way broadband worked in the US, it was eventually bought out or dragged down and kept down for the count.

Remember Telocity? It was one of the first companies to offer DSL service in the US, ahead of Ma Bell. Even though it was paying hefty amounts of money for the right to transport Internet traffic on Ma Bell’s lines, they had enormous problems with the same Ma Bell, due to problems that would somehow just happen to crop up on the same wires or the switching equipment. Then they’d have to pay more money so Ma Bell could fix their own equipment, which they’d say Telocity broke, etc., ad nauseam, and so on and so forth.

That’s just one example. Another was the more recent push to restructure the way cable services are provided (both TV and internet). One of the efforts was the a-la-carte programming initiative, and another was the push for faster and more reliable cable Internet services. You wouldn’t believe the advertising, PR and lobbying blitz the cable industry started and kept up for several months — actually, I’m fairly sure you saw their ads on TVs and buses everywhere, particularly in the Washington, DC area.

Or what about when they got together in late 2007 and 2008 to ask for an Internet tax? Remember the tiers of traffic they wanted to create? They wanted all the big websites to pay them for the traffic, as if they weren’t already getting enough money from the customers for their slow and unreliable services. They also wanted large chunks of money from the federal government in order to upgrade their infrastructure. No matter how much money they make, they’re so greedy they always want more, more, more.

What I’d like to know is how all these other countries, including Romania, can manage to offer faster and more reliable Internet services without asking for money from their countries’ government, without charging big websites for their traffic, and also by charging less per month for better broadband? How is that possible? Could it be that these companies actually know how to run their businesses while their counterparts in the US are filled with lazy, greedy idiots?

I still vividly remember an incident which happened while I was a director of IT at a Florida hospital, several years ago. A BellSouth technician had been called in to check the phone boards, and my network and servers kept going down and coming back up. The Medical Records system kept giving errors when employees wanted to access forms to fill in patient data, not to mention that other network services, like file sharing and printing, kept going on the fritz. I checked every one of the servers and they were fine. I finally walked into the switch room, at my wits’ end, only to find the moronic BellSouth employee with his fat, lazy butt on our UPS, jiggling it back and forth as he chatted with someone back at BellSouth HQ, plugging and unplugging the power supply that fed one of the main network switches. I went ballistic, grabbed him by the collar and threw him out of my switch room. Was he that stupid that he didn’t know where he was sitting? Was he such a pig that he couldn’t feel the plugs underneath him as he sat on them? He didn’t even want to apologize for taking out an entire hospital’s network during daytime hours. That’s BellSouth for you.

I don’t know how the US can get better broadband, unless it’s legislated. An ultimatum must be given by the government, one that can’t be overridden by any lobbyists or CEOs shedding crocodile tears in front of Congress. These companies simply will not get their act together until they, too, are grabbed by their collars and shaken about. They’ve gotten used to the status quo, they like it, and they’re clinging to it with all their might.

Meanwhile, here’s a sample of the Internet plans you can get in Romania right now. For comparison purposes, 1 Euro is worth about $1.4 these days.

Romtelecom (the main phone carrier, provides ADSL services):

  • 2 Mbps, 2084 kbps/512 kbps, 4.88 Euro/month
  • 4 Mbps, 4096 kbps/512 kbps, 7.02 Euro/month
  • 6 Mbps, 6144 kbps/512 kbps, 9.40 Euro/month
  • 8 Mbps, 8192 kbps/768 kbps, 14.16 Euro/month
  • 20 Mbps, 20480 kbps/1024 kbps, 24.87 Euro/month

[source]

Birotec (provides fiber optic services, all plans include phone line with varying amount of minutes based on plan price):

  • 3 Mbps up/down, 10 Euro/month
  • 4 Mbps up/down, 15 Euro/month
  • 6 Mbps up/down, 20 Euro/month
  • 8 Mbps up/down, 29 Euro/month
  • 10 Mbps up/down, 49 Euro/month

[source]

RDS (provides fiber optic, cable, cellular modem and dial-up access — prices not readily available on website):

  • Fiber optic access up to 2.5 Gbps
  • Cable access up to 30 Mbps

[source]

The lowest internet access plan in Romania is 2 Mbps. Cellular modems are advertised at speeds up to 3 Mbps. Meanwhile, in the US, you can still find 512 Kbps plans at prices twice or three times as much as the 2 Mbps plans in Romania. That’s the price of complacency and excessive lobbyism.

Meet Buttons, the cutest kitteh ever

The one with the tiny nose

Sorry for the baited title. This post is really about how web users interact with written content on the Internet, and how people in general interact with the news these days. But read on anyway, you might find this useful, and there’s even another cute kitty photo at the end.

I’ve been sitting on the sidelines lately, looking at the way people interact with items on FriendFeed, and I realized it’s all part of how people in general interact with the world these days. In a word, it’s superficial. On the web, there’s barely any interaction with items that have no thumbnails. If there’s no image to be digested quickly with a news item, then it gets buried, fast. That particular news item might be truly meaningful, it could have real value, it could be worth at least a few minutes of someone’s time, but users just don’t take the time to click through and find out what’s going on if there isn’t an image to go along with it. It’s like they’re little kids and they gotta have pictures in their story books. Whatever happened to being adults?

I’m not talking about my own articles, and I’m not talking about FriendFeed per se. I’m talking about the bigger picture. You can see this on TV as well. In the US nowadays, instead of showing the person who is talking, whether that be a news presenter or a person being interviewed, the stations overlay the audio on top of looping footage of the things the person is talking about, or they run the audio on top of marginally related video, ostensibly to keep a spastic audience glued to the set. In Romania, where I’ve been staying these past few months, they divide the TV screen in half. They show the commentator in one half, and they show video footage in the other. Your eyes keep jumping from one spot on the screen to the other, to make sure they catch all the action. And they also scroll text and stock and weather alerts on the bottom of the screen. It’s nuts. You just don’t get the chance to digest what the person is saying, because your attention is continually grabbed and pulled in many different directions.

If you are reading this on FriendFeed or in a RSS reader that shows media content thumbnails, do you know why you clicked on it? Likely because I had a photo of a cute kitten to draw your attention, not because you wanted to do some actual reading. It would have been much better if I showed some woman in a bikini — many more people would be reading this article right now, or at least skimming it, hoping for more photos.

Isn’t it sad though? For a person who likes to write, and wants to communicate through writing, it’s so disappointing to see the audience drifting from adult food to baby bites, to cute or sexy photos with (preferably) one or two sentence captions, instead of real articles. Whatever happened to sitting down and reading something?

Don’t tell me it’s because you’re busy. I don’t buy it. You’re lying to yourself and you’re lying to me. People have always had lots of work to do. Sure, it wasn’t computer work a few decades ago, but it was chores or factory work, and it took just as much time and much more effort. But they knew how to relax. They could sit down with a magazine or newspaper in hand, tune out everything else, and read something they found interesting.

You still have that ability. Stop being immature and clicking on everything, and pick the stuff you want to spend your time on carefully. There’s only so much time in one day, and you can’t keep up with a thousand RSS subscriptions and still do other things. Thin out the stuff you want to see on the web every day. On a larger scale, thin out the stuff you want to do every day, because you can’t do it all. Decide on what’s important to you, and stick with that. Maybe if more people took this advice, the world would be a saner place for those who write on the web, like me. We wouldn’t have to go nuts trying to get the word out about our content, because people would take the time to find interesting stuff and stick with it.

If you’re a FriendFeed user, let me tell you it’s not cool to subscribe to tons of people just so you can watch news items stream by you in real time and feel good about keeping up with everything that’s going on in the world, because that’s not the case. In the end, you’re just as superficial as the guy who looks at a magazine cover and thinks he knows everything inside it. Instead of wasting your time doing that stuff, pick the people you find interesting, weed out the rest, and really sit down to see what they have to say.

Now, just because you read/skimmed this far, here’s another photo of kittens, this time two of them, playing together. See, I’m not such a bad person.

Games kittens play